The sinner and the saint?
July 10,2022 Luke 10:25-37
When I saw this week’s Gospel reading, my heart sank. The Good Samaritan! How many times have we heard this parable and what could I possibly say about it that was new? Theologically, it’s often surmised that Jesus was pointing out that the Levite and the priest were of high social status and would have been expected to do the right thing and ultimately attain eternal life. Yet, according to Jewish law, they would have become unclean by helping a bloodied man, so while they may have been following the rules they had forgotten the greatest rule: to show mercy.
The Samaritan was a Gentile, and for those listening in Jesus audience, an outcast. Jesus shocked the crowd by depicting the Samaritan, this undesirable person, as the hero of the story, as the person who will attain eternal life. It’s often presented today as a sweet and tidy story with the ultimate message of, ”be kind to others,” but in Jesus day it was radical.
To hear something new from the Good Samaritan story, I used a spiritual practice encouraged by Saint Ignatius called ‘Gospel Contemplation’. In Gospel contemplation, you read a Gospel passage like the Good Samaritan parable a couple of times and then, on the 3rd reading, you imagine yourself as an observer in the story. Like an actor in a play, you immerse yourself in the scene so that you’re seeing, feeling, hearing everything that is happening and getting a better understanding of the perspective of whomever you are in the story.
Using Gospel contemplation, I imagined myself as the Samaritan on the road to Jericho. It was hot and dusty as I walked with my donkey. I was anxious because this road was notoriously dangerous for harboring thieves. When I saw the beaten man on the side of the road, I was saddened but also slightly annoyed. He clearly needed my help. I chose not to ignore him, but stopping meant I would be delayed in arriving in Jericho. After leaving the beaten man at the inn, I was feeling pretty good about myself and my actions. I was a great guy! That is where the story ends in the Bible but I decided to keep walking to Jericho as the Samaritan. What if upon arriving in the city I was well known for some not so great actions like tax evasion, sexual harassment or a gambling problem. Now the hero doesn’t look so heroic. Can I be both a hero and a sinner?
I probably thought about this because of a recent exposé in the New York Times about Deshaun Watson, the Cleveland Browns quarterback who signed a five-year contract with a salary guarantee of $230 million. Back in 2017 after Hurricane Harvey he gave his first NFL salary check to stadium cafeteria employees. I love this guy!! Hooray. Turns out he also had a serious problem harassing and assaulting women he hired as massage therapists. Boo, I do not like this guy. Which guy is he?
I’ve heard it said that we are not who we are on our worst day. If that is true, then are we not who we are on our best day? I think, instead, both are true. We are that person on our worst and best day. Humans can be a hero one day and a sinner the next. We are deeply flawed and can also be deeply merciful. We like to think folks are one or the other. We love binary choices: yes/no, good/bad, right/wrong, but our behavior is on a spectrum. Yet, when others make mistakes, we quickly throw them into the sinner camp and we rarely let them out. It’s easy to do, and it feels good because then we feel like we’re the better person.
Lately, I’ve been trying to see Christ in every person I meet. It’s exhausting because it takes effort and patience. Often I make a quick, negative judgement about someone and then the next second think, ”Oh yeah, I’m supposed to remember Christ is in this person. Rats!!” I’m hoping with a lot of time (probably a lifetime) it will become a reflex habit--that I will show mercy to everyone, and maybe one day when I’m not the hero but the sinner, that mercy will be shown to me.